Asteroid 9 times size of ocean liner approaches Earth

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The 1998 QE2 asteroid has the physical mass to potentially deliver life on Earth a knockout punch, being 2.7km in length. It is to buzz our planet on May 31, aweing the stargazing community. Officially known as Asteroid 1998 QE2, the ‘minor planet’, as astronomers refer to these space objects, is about nine times the length of its name-sharing ocean liner, Queen Elizabeth 2.

The incoming space object is not named in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, however, nor the 12-deck QE2 luxury liner. It’s simply the designation assigned by the US Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, based on an alphanumeric code for naming newly-discovered asteroids.

Aside from the asteroid’s hulking mass, another thing that intrigues astronomers about QE2 is that nobody can say with any certainty where it came from.

One clue to its origins, however, is that its surface is said to be covered with a sticky, black residue, suggesting that it may be the remains of a comet that came in close proximity to the sun, Amy Mainzer, a researcher at Jet Propulsion Laboratory at La Cañada Flintridge, California, told the Los Angeles Times.

Another explanation is that QE2, discovered on August 19, 1998 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was originally part of the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, she said.

QE2’s nearest approach happens on May 31 at 20:59 GMT, bringing the huge space rock to within 3.6 million miles (5.8 million km) of Earth – about 15 times the distance to the Moon. While this may seem a great distance, in astronomical terms it is a mere stone’s throw away.

Mainzer emphasized the significance of the asteroid, drawing parallels with a past celestial event that had devastating consequences for the entire planet.

“This is a really big asteroid, similar in size to the one that killed off the dinosaurs, and it’s getting very close to us,” she told the Times.

“Fortunately we’ve been tracking its orbit very carefully so we know with great certainty it won’t hit us. We don’t need to panic, but we do need to pay attention, she added.

Since the threat of a doomsday scenario seems unlikely, astronomers will be given an opportunity to study the physical characteristics of asteroids, as well as their history.

“Whenever an asteroid approaches this closely, it provides an important scientific opportunity to study it in detail to understand its size, shape, rotation, surface features, and what they can tell us about its origin,” radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Observers will take advantage of radar technology to measure the asteroid’s distance and velocity to improve the calculation of its orbit and compute its motion farther into the future than we could otherwise, he added.

The next arrival of Asteroid 1998 QE2 following its near-miss on May 31 will not occur again for another two centuries.

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